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When Your Ex Gives Harmful Gifts

It’s Christmas morning and your heart is beating wildly.  It isn’t because you want to know what’s in your gift, it’s because you are dreading what’s in your kid’s gift from from your ex, their other parent.

Divorce has a way of complicating nearly everything.  Gift giving can easily become competitive, guilt driven, about overcompensating and even passive aggressive against the ex spouse.

A gift can speak volumes. Kids have their own decoder and certain gifts make them feel understood, more adult-like or trusted. A 12-year-old that gets the “M” rated video game they’ve been badgering everyone for will heap all sorts of praise on the parent who gives it to them. The parent who still feels that game is a ”NO” now is the jerk, distrusting, prudish, and a killjoy.

Here are some examples of gifts that have led to conflict.

  • Smartphone
  • Video games/Console
  • Movies that will negatively influence them
  • Age inappropriate clothing
  • Extravagant vacation that conflicts with prior agreements
  • Any kind of animal
  • Tatoo or piercing

I’m sure there are a bunch of other gifts that have the potential for creating strain in relationships, and one parent being forced to either allow their kid to do something that could harm them  -or having to be the bad cop and take it away.

Are there options other than being the bad cop?

This is a question that I get from divorced parents at nearly every parenting seminar. The parent is really working hard to protect the purity of their child and yet they are tired of having to be the “bad guy” who isn’t cool and only buys lame gifts. They want to know how to respond to the situation without restarting a war and disparaging the ex.

I’m not especially qualified to answer this question. I grew up in an intact home. I’m also married to my first wife (one and only for for 21 years) and so I haven’t personally been in the position of wanting to cry, shout, scream and pound my fists as my kid has their Christmas wish come true.

However, I’ve met enough really good parents who struggle with this problem that are looking for an answer and so I’ve been asking parents and kids who have experienced this pain to help me answer the question.

How do you respond when your kid now possesses something that you don’t think they should have?

First, there is power in the word respond.  It means that you aren’t letting emotions and habits dominate what you do.  Second, you are placed in a position which requires a response.  Either you will need to change your expectations for what your child is allowed to bring into your home or you’ll have to be the adult parent in the situation and reset expectations for the child.  You probably feel like screaming at the ex and trying to make them powerless, but that won’t get you out of your jam.

Parents have shared with me that it’s important not to jump in immediately to solve the tension.  Keep opening gifts rather than making the moment about rules and parenting struggles.  Avoid snarky comments and keep moving on.  This doesn’t mean that you don’t respond, you’re just waiting for better timing.

Most parents I talk to find that they end up with a compromise in which they share why that gift is not something they can have in their home and why even though the item belongs to the child, they will not have access to it when they are in your influence.  So the video game is theirs but can only be played when under dad’s influence.

You aren’t mad at them if they play the game or use the thing they have.  Your job is to raise them to the best of your ability and even if makes things harder, you are still going to do what you feel is best.  This isn’t a time for guilt trips, but a chance to let them know that you care deeply for them and their futures.  You are influencing to the best of your ability.

A couple themes came up which sound simple but aren’t easy.

  1. Don’t question the love or thoughtfulness of the ex, at least not in front of your kid. You don’t want to say it is a good gift but it’s possible to affirm that the ex does want them to be happy and wanted to get a gift they would love.
  2. Understand that this is brutal on them and their sense of fairness. It isn’t fair that they have to try to navigate two very different worlds. In one world they connect over a violent game and in another they connect on more innocent activities. It’s brutal to want something really bad and have it so close and then have it taken away.
  3. There is a whole part of their life that is out of your control and out of their control. If you share custody then a reality is that they may spend part of their childhood in a home that is counter to all you are trying to accomplish and there is very little that you can do about it. They also have very little control in the situation and while they may have a preference for one lifestyle, the pull of being with a parent makes it hard to make their preferences a priority.  The complexity of the custodial arrangments and decrees make it impossible to chose where they spend their time and what they are exposed to.
  4. It’s okay to have rules in your home that are different than the ex’s home. It may seem confusing and it will be frustrating to your kids but they need to know that you take seriously the God given task of raising them safely to adulthood. You will use all your resources to help your child safely reach adulthood and that means that you are more concerned with their success rather than equalizing things between the ex’s house and yours.
  5. They own the gifts but that doesn’t mean they have free access to them. Just because they own a movie, phone, game or item of clothing doesn’t mean they get to to use those items when they are in your care. You don’t lose your veto parent power just because another parent gave them the gift. You can put the item in a box and say it is theirs to take when they go to the other home but this item will not be available to them when they are under your care.
  6. Proactively communicate your decisions/boundaries to your ex. This isn’t a time to create a battle or even defend your position. Instead, affirm that they bought a gift which your child is really excited about and loves. State that you aren’t comfortable with the gift being used while in your home or influence and so will be sending it with them on the next visit. Ask that they keep the gift at their home. Finally, state that if they are ever interested in learning more about why you don’t want the gift in your home, you’d be willing to share your reasons but that this isn’t the time.

Winning a no-win situation.

Nothing about this situation is easy. At the end of the day there is power in two things.

  1. Clear and open communication. A key to your child being a great adult is not only being able to talk about real life issues but also helping your kid own their purity. This isn’t easy and the anger, fear, shame and lots of other emotions from divorce make it even harder to talk about these issues. Your child benefits from being heard and understood.
  2. Prayer becomes more necessary and powerful than we ever thought possible.

If you have other suggestions or stories that I could pass on to parents and kids who have experienced this challenge would you email me at chuck@projectpatch.org?

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